General Motors, Ford and some other car companies are not all that far behind Tesla when it comes to driver-assist technology. While only Tesla offers what it calls “Full Self Driving” (FSD) as a beta program for those who have paid up to $12,000 for the privilege of being
Among the first to try this technology, most auto companies now have features that will keep your car in its lane on the highway — in some cases without the driver even needing to have their hands on the wheel.
General Motors just announced that its Super Cruise technology will be expanded to work on undivided highways in the US and Canada. In a press release, the company said that it’s “doubling the Super Cruise road network,” adding “hundreds of thousands of additional miles of roads in the US and Canada (that) can be explored hands-free.” This expansion will allow drivers to transverse roads like the Pacific Coast Highway, the Trans-Canada Highway or, you can “get your kicks on Route 66,” without having your hands on the wheel.
Super Cruise accelerates or brakes as needed, steers to keep you in your lane, and in some situations, can change lanes “to pass slower traffic and to move from a lane that may be ending.” Unlike Tesla’s autopilot, which requires the driver to keep pressure on the steering wheel to provide they’re able to take over, the GM technology monitors the driver’s head position to make sure they’re looking at the road.
Another difference between GM and Tesla’s strategy is that GM is using LiDAR map data, radars and GPS along with cameras. Tesla cars don’t have LiDar, and the company recently stopped putting radar in some models, relying solely on cameras to determine the vehicle’s position and proximity to other vehicles, pedestrians and obstacles. LiDar, short for “light detection and ranging,” uses lasers to create a 3D representation of the environment.
Super Cruise is available mostly on higher-end GM cars, including some Cadillacs, Hummers and other models, but the company has pledged to roll it out to other models in its fleet.
Ford offers what it calls Ford BlueCruise with what the company describes as “Intelligent Adaptive Cruise Control with Stop-and-Go and Lane Centering and Speed Sign Recognition.” Like GM, it allows for hands-free driving by monitoring your head and eyes with an in-cabin camera.
For the past several months, I’ve been beta testing Tesla’s so-called “Full Self Driving” so you don’t have to. It’s promising but buggy, which is why, despite it’s name, it’s basically just a driver-assist tool that still requires vigilance from the human behind the wheel. And even though it’s gotten incrementally better through over-the-air updates, it’s still buggy and jerky. Truth be told, using FSD requires more concentration than regular driving. Not only do you have to worry about mistakes from other drivers and yourself, you also have to anticipates and correct for mistakes the car’s software makes.
Most of the time, FSD works pretty well, but there are times when it will suddenly change lanes for no particular reason or speed up when I would prefer to slow down. Just this morning, I was honked at by an 18-wheel truck for going too slow because, for some reason, FSD had me driving below the speed limit on a city street.
When I first tested it, it had the habit of making right turns from the left lane, but that’s improved quite a bit. Still, it sometimes makes awkward turns that are either too wide or too abrupt.
Brad Tempelton, who is, among other things, an expert on autonomous vehicles, owns a midrange Tesla Model 3 that’s nearly identical to mine. Like me, he’s been testing FSD, and earlier this year, he gave it an F based on the number of mistakes it made in a 3.5-mile loop. “Many of these faults, he said “can be blamed on Tesla’s decision not to have detailed maps. Tesla uses navigation maps and some lane-level maps, and even has (but doesn’t admit it) detailed maps of certain tricky areas. But it doesn’t have enough, and many of these problems would not have happened with better map.”
Unlike Tesla, GM and Ford are using maps on the highways where they are allowing use of their auto-steer technology. Admittedly, that means that they will support fewer roads than Tesla but will do a better job on the roads they do support. The sad part about this is that Tesla does have a lot of mapping data at its disposal, considering the number of people who are driving its cars, which can gather mapping information as they drive even if they’re not using FSD or auto-pilot . Tempelton also criticizes Tesla’s decision to not use LiDar and back away from radar.
Having said this, I must admit that, even two years ago, Tesla’s auto-pilot has done a great job on major highways. It does keep you in your lane, and it does change lanes safely, although I still look around before letting it make a lane change and sometimes override it if I’m not comfortable with the maneuver.
If you’re in the market for a car
If you’re looking to buy a new car, I strongly recommend that you consider an electric car. After owning a Model 3 for 3½ years, I can’t imagine going back to a gasoline car. Yes, I do have to do a little more planning before taking road trips to out-of-the-way areas, but even with my range of only about 250 miles (less than many of this year’s models), I have never had a problem, given Tesla’s network of Super Chargers which, reportedly, will eventually open up for cars from other companies
I also highly recommend driver-assistance technology. I’ve long enjoyed the adaptive cruise control on my 2016 Prius, which keeps its distance from the car in front, allowing you to mostly avoid using the gas pedal or the brake. And the newer technologies that allow you to drive hands free on the highway, make road trips much more relaxing and in some ways safer, especially if they help you avoid collisions when changing lanes or when someone cuts in front of you. Auto-breaking can also be a life saver.
I look forward to the day when I can sit in the back seat of my car, using my phone or laptop or maybe even taking a nap or enjoying a cocktail. But, until then, attentive driving and a little bit of tech assistance will have to suffice.
Larry Magid is a tech journalist and internet safety activist.